Travel: From beach bonfires to VIP theme park tours: 7 ways to upgrade your Florida vacation

25 Best Beaches in the U.S.

  25 Best Beaches in the U.S. From New York to Hawaii, and California to Florida, find your perfect U.S. beach destination. As summer approaches, you likely have one thing on your mind: the beach. But not all sandy stretches are created equal. Many different criteria define the perfect beach: the sand, the waves (or lack thereof), the level seclusion, the public transportation and accessible parking, the boardwalk, the activities, and even the amount of shaded trees. Some blissful stretches are found alongside an ocean with striking rock formations or mountains in the distance, while others sit on a picturesque lake or river.

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A Florida vacation can mean different things to different people. It could be an adventure-packed, week-long trip to Central Orlando for a tour of the world’s most thrilling theme parks like Walt Disney World. It could be a weekend getaway to Miami Beach where you’ll lounge by the pool and beach by day and club-hop by night. Or it could be a beach house on the Panhandle or Gulf Coast where you can gather with friends or take day trips to some of the most beautiful nature reserves in the country. And, it also could be a trip to St. Augustine, the country’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement, to learn the history of the Timucua Native Americans, Spanish settlers and others who lived there before Florida was folded into the United States.

With so much to do on a Florida vacation, it’s tough to offer a single tip to make your trip special, but, there are some universal ways to upgrade your visit to the Sunshine State. Here are some secrets from TPG:

13 of the best beaches in Florida

  13 of the best beaches in Florida The peninsula of Florida offers thousands of miles of coastline and beaches, from the Atlantic on the East, the state’s “panhandle” in the northwest and the Gulf Coast with postcard-perfect sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s impossible to distill all of the beach options down to a short “best of” list but TPG does …(If you want to consider additional beach options, check out Visit Florida’s Beach Finder that lets you pick from various regions of the state and types of experiences to find the beach that’s perfect for you.

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In This Post

Hire a beach concierge

a group of people sitting at a beach: Ask your beach concierge to set up a champagne toast. (Photo by Michael H/Getty Images) © The Points Guy Ask your beach concierge to set up a champagne toast. (Photo by Michael H/Getty Images)

In Florida, and other beachy locations, you can hire companies that act as your beach concierge. They can scout out the beach to find the perfect spot to set up lounge chairs and umbrellas — and you can rent from them. They’ll cart everything away at the end of the day, too.

Boogie boards, pool noodles and bike rentals may also be available. And, some outfits will pack a cooler with cold beverages, sandwiches and snacks for your day at the beach. On certain beaches, they can help you get a permit for a bonfire or even plan and serve up a fun shrimp boil or barbecue.

How to visit national parks as lockdowns lift

  How to visit national parks as lockdowns lift From figuring out which parks are open to the best practices once you’re there, take a look at these tips for traveling responsibly.On Memorial Day this year, visitors waited for sunrise at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The park, one of America’s most visited, has begun a phased reopening after closing to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Your Friend at the Beach in Santa Rosa Beach on the Panhandle is a good example. This beach concierge company can send a masseuse to your condo, rent you a crib or other baby supplies, or set you up with a fishing charter. Other popular services include a beach photography session for your family, a grocery-delivery service and even the assistance of a private chef in your home rental or condo.

To find a beach concierge in the Florida area where you’re visiting, check the local visitors bureau or chamber of commerce. Or, do an old-fashioned Google search with the name of your destination and terms like “beach concierge,” “beach-chair rental and set up” or “beach-chair delivery.”

Related: These are Florida’s best beaches

Book a special tour with an expert

In Florida, there are a zillion opportunities to explore the flora and fauna — as well as the cities and theme parks — with an expert. To make your trip extra special, find a tour that matches your interests and gives you VIP access to some amazing parts of the state.

National parks are reopening from coronavirus closures. Here's what to know

  National parks are reopening from coronavirus closures. Here's what to know Many national park sites are at least partially open to visitors as the country. But not all facilities and services are available.  "In accordance with this guidance and in coordination with governors across the country, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service are working to reopen the American people’s national parks as rapidly as possible," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. © Alden Woods / The Republic A visitor poses for a photo on a ledge off the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

A post shared by Discover Crystal River (@discovercrystalriver)

A post shared by Discover Crystal River (@discovercrystalriver) on May 19, 2020 at 8:45am PDT

On Amelia Island, you can call upon a professional shark-tooth hunter to help you comb the beach for shark teeth. Because of the contours of the ocean shelf along the coastline, it’s not uncommon to find teeth from the extinct megalodon here too!

Many theme parks offer VIP tours with special behind-the-scenes access and skip-the-line perks. These tours can be pricey but may be worth it to you if you have limited time to explore all the fun. Younger families have rave reviews of Legoland Florida’s VIP Tour and Universal also has its Universal Studios Private VIP Tour. Disney offers a variety of VIP tours, some starting at under $100 and others pricing out at more than $10,000 per day!

You can hire a private tour guide like My VIP Tour or Michael’s VIPs to take you through your favorite theme park. If you have no idea how to plan the perfect trip, this ensures you get on all the must-do rides (without waiting in hours-long lines) and snag the best character breakfast reservations. It helps to have an expert to guide you through it all.

Our 15 favorite Florida hotels for every type of traveler

  Our 15 favorite Florida hotels for every type of traveler One of the most attractive things about Florida — in addition to its sunny weather — is its diversity of accommodations. From luxe oceanfront resorts to cost-effective barrier island beach cottages to family-friendly complexes in central Florida tied to all the theme park fun, you’ll find something that’s absolutely perfect for you — no matter …To help you sort through all the options, here are 15 of our favorite Florida hotels in a few different categories.

No matter where you’re visiting in Florida, you’ll find private or group-tour options. You may want to swim alongside manatees in a natural spring, picnic on a sandbar off the Miami coast, enjoy a dolphin-watching boat tour or go shelling with someone who can tell you about each specimen you discover. To find the right tour, check out the local visitors bureau or chamber of commerce. Both should have a list of area tour providers. You can also search Google or check out an aggregator like Viator.

Rent a convertible

This is an obvious tip but if you’ve booked a trip to Florida for the glorious, sunny weather — and you plan to explore the area by car — rent a convertible if your budget allows. Nothing screams “Freedom!” like rolling down the Overseas Highway toward the Florida Keys with the top down, the sun on your face and the beautiful turquoise water stretching out on either side of the highway. It’s an epic road trip made all the better in the right type of rental car. If you don’t rent cars all that often, here’s TPG’s take on the best rental car companies for all types of travelers. And, if you’re under 25, here’s how to get the under-25 fee waived the next time you rent a car.

Related: Save money on rental cars with AutoSlash

water next to the ocean: Aerial image of the Overseas Highway Florida Keys. (Photo by felixmizioznikov/Getty Images) © The Points Guy Aerial image of the Overseas Highway Florida Keys. (Photo by felixmizioznikov/Getty Images)

Book a hotel with theme-park perks

a castle on a train track with trees in the background: Disney’s Grand Floridian. (Photo courtesy of Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort) © The Points Guy Disney’s Grand Floridian. (Photo courtesy of Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort)

If you’re visiting an Orlando theme park, stay at a hotel offering early-entry hours to specific parks or skip-the-line passes to the most popular rides and attractions.

6 safer, expert-backed ways to take a vacation during the pandemic, from road trips to private vacation homes and remote campsites

  6 safer, expert-backed ways to take a vacation during the pandemic, from road trips to private vacation homes and remote campsites If you're seeking a safer vacation choice during COVID, we rounded up every idea we've covered for close to home options based on expert advice.With summer in full swing and many states easing restrictions around the novel coronavirus, US travelers are eager to get out of their homes and hit the road — safely.

Everyone staying at an on-site Disney World Resort hotel has access to Extra Magic Hours. This valuable perk lets you and your family enter the park — the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot or Animal Kingdom — before it opens to the public, or lets you stay after the usual closing time. During these extra hours, select popular rides and attractions are open. If you plan it right and are at the gates as soon as they open, you can enjoy some very popular rides with nearly no wait and no need to “waste” one of your coveted FastPass+ reservations to skip the line since they will be negligible during Extra Magic Hours.

In addition to Disney’s official resorts, the Extra Magic Hours benefit is also offered to guests at a few other hotels, too. Here’s a list of all hotels offering Extra Magic Hours:

  • Official Walt Disney World Resorts
  • Disney Springs Resort-area hotels
  • Marriott’s Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin
  • Shades of Green Resort
  • Four Seasons Resort Orlando
  • Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
  • Waldorf Astoria Orlando

Related: Don’t make these 19 mistakes at Walt Disney World

Guests of Universal hotels also get similar early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal’s Volcano Bay. Guests can access the parks one hour before normal opening time. Valid theme park admission is required. The list of hotels that offer this perk include:

  • Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites
  • Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites
  • Universal’s Aventura Hotel
  • Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort
  • Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
  • Loews Royal Pacific Resort
  • Hard Rock Hotel
  • Loews Portofino Bay Hotel

Related: Choosing the best Universal Orlando hotel for your trip

TurnKey Vacation Rental listings are typically more expensive than ones on Airbnb and Vrbo, but every property is vetted to ensure a hotel-like experience — here's how it works and what to expect

  TurnKey Vacation Rental listings are typically more expensive than ones on Airbnb and Vrbo, but every property is vetted to ensure a hotel-like experience — here's how it works and what to expect TurnKey Vacation Rentals includes thousands of well-appointed homes across the US, with standard policies for COVID, cleanings, and cancellations.Many Americans have returned to travel in some measure as the pandemic continues, though the methods they're selecting may be different than in the past. Home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb have reported an uptick in booking private vacation home rentals when compared to this time last year.

Both of the major Orlando theme park complexes — Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando — offer skip-the-line passes to certain visitors. At Walt Disney World, on-site hotel guests, those staying at Disney Springs-area hotels and other select nearby hotels can make FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days in advance of their trip via the My Disney Experience app, instead of the usual 30 days out for non-resort guests.

At Universal Orlando, guests of its Premier-class hotels — Loews Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay — get a Universal Express Unlimited Pass that lets you skip the line at most popular attractions.

Use a grocery service

Many people visit Florida and book accommodations — like a home, condo or cottage — that have a kitchenette or full kitchen. If you’re tight on time, you can use a grocery-delivery service to stock the kitchen from the moment you arrive. If you have an Instacart membership, you can simply use that to schedule a delivery from a local grocer upon your arrival. (Here’s a guide to ensure you earn bonus points for your grocery purchases.) Many people even get groceries delivered at Disney World.

If you’re staying at a rental home or condo, the booking agent may offer a grocery-stocking service. Or, many towns relying on the tourist trade offer several options that you can find online or through the area’s visitors bureau.

It’s a huge plus to have everything you need, from coffee to breakfast cereal to ice cream and popsicles, from the moment you arrive.

Related: The definitive guide to online grocery delivery services

Lean on your hotel’s concierge

a man and a woman looking at the camera: The hotel concierge helps you with all sorts of trip planning. (Photo by alvarez/Getty Images) © The Points Guy The hotel concierge helps you with all sorts of trip planning. (Photo by alvarez/Getty Images)

Depending on the type of hotel or resort you’re staying at, you may have access to a concierge. Even if you normally make all of your own plans, you owe it to yourself to try to put the concierge through his or her paces. That’s what they’re there for.

Should Disney World even be open?

  Should Disney World even be open? What it’s really like in the park right now, according to a theme park expert.It’s a common saying at Walt Disney World, one you’ll hear upon arriving at a seaside boardwalk hotel, telling a Grand Floridian Cafe server where you’re from, or scanning a MagicBand to board Disney’s Magical Express airport bus. It reinforces everything about Disney’s trademark wonder and nostalgia, not to mention the distinctly American sentimentality of saving hard-earned money and spending it on the same vacation you may have experienced as a child.

In a nutshell, a concierge exists to help guests learn the lay of the land (they usually have maps and attraction brochures to hand out), arrange tours, secure theater tickets, snag tough-to-get restaurant reservations and more. A good concierge can ask you a few key questions and then make targeted suggestions as to the best things for you to see and do based on your preferences.

If you’re staying in Miami during high season, the help of a good concierge is key — especially if you didn’t plan ahead and don’t have reservations to the hottest new restaurants or are clueless about which clubs are worth the visit. The concierge also knows the best fishing guides, tour operators and more. If you’re not sure where to start exploring, head to the concierge desk, which is usually in the hotel lobby, and explain what you need.

If you’re not staying at hotel that offers the assistance of a concierge, have no fear. If you have a premium credit card — like The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and the Citi Prestige® Card — you may have access to an on-call concierge as a benefit of your card. You can use these concierges in the same manner as the ones posted at hotels. Contact them via phone or email to ask about local transportation options, to inquire about restaurant reservations, look for local guides and more.

If you hold the Amex Platinum, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express or the Centurion Card from American Express, you can use the Amex app to browse and book restaurant reservations without calling the concierge directly. Go to the “Membership” tab in the app and select “Access Top Restaurants.” From there, you can search more than 10,000 restaurants worldwide.

The information for the Citi Prestige Card and Centurion Card have been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Battle of the premium credit cards — comparing concierge services

Reserve a beach or pool cabana

A post shared by Hyatt Regency Coconut Point (@hyattregencycoconutpoint)

A post shared by Hyatt Regency Coconut Point (@hyattregencycoconutpoint) on Feb 9, 2019 at 1:52pm PST

Finally, although it can be expensive, we’re all for splurging on the rental of a beach or pool cabana. It can get hot and humid in Florida and while beach breezes are usually the norm, having some shade, a fan — as well as some additional perks like food and beverage service — can be a huge plus if you plan to spend an afternoon at the pool or on the sand.

Many resorts offer cabanas at an hourly, half-day or daily rate. For example, you can rent a cabana at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point’s lazy river for $475. Up to six people have access to the cabana from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (hours vary by season). The cabana is outfitted with a minifridge stocked with four bottles of water and six sodas. There’s also a TV, cocktail table, two cushioned pool chaise lounges, a corner sofa, ceiling fan, safe and pool towels. There are even some “connecting” cabanas if you have a group that’s larger than six people.

Having a central meeting place where you can drop off your things while you enjoy the lazy river, pool and beach can be such a boon — especially when you’re traveling with a group.

Bottom line

There are all sorts of ways to give your Florida vacation an upgrade. Whether you’re visiting the theme parks, one of the state’s many beaches or spending time at a state park or natural spring, you’ll find a way to make your visit extra special.

Featured photo by Gary John Norman/Getty Images.

SPONSORED: While travel is limited right now due to COVID-19, you need your everyday purchases to give you flexible, forever useful cash. In general, TPG gives preference to transferable points and using your points to travel, but on some days, cash is king.

These are the top cash-back cards, and a few others that award transferable points that can be used as cash.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Should Disney World even be open? .
What it’s really like in the park right now, according to a theme park expert.It’s a common saying at Walt Disney World, one you’ll hear upon arriving at a seaside boardwalk hotel, telling a Grand Floridian Cafe server where you’re from, or scanning a MagicBand to board Disney’s Magical Express airport bus. It reinforces everything about Disney’s trademark wonder and nostalgia, not to mention the distinctly American sentimentality of saving hard-earned money and spending it on the same vacation you may have experienced as a child.

See also